Lots of career teachers look at technology with a curious fear. They would like to try out a new technology in the classroom, but they fear not being in control or being the expert that their students, parents, and evaluators expect them to be. We who have been teaching 10+ years might look with a bit of fascinated envy at our newer colleagues as they seamlessly integrate the latest and greatest apps and websites that the internet has to offer into their teaching routines. We mistakingly think that those newer colleagues were born so skilled and that we missed the boat. This is not the case. It is never too late learn and if you don’t believe that then, well perhaps you should take that sabbatical leave that you have been thinking about and get yourself enrolled in a good graduate program.
Remember when iTunes was new and all the rage? The icon spoke to people of my generation who had painstakingly collected our music on CDs. The wizards at apple had to concoct an incredible potion to get us to use iTunes, first by allowing us to rip our CDs into the player, and then enticing us to purchase new music from their store. Because my first Apple product was my school issued laptop, I experimented with iTunes on my work computer. I invested hours of my nights and weekends, probably procrastinating reading & grading the piles of student essays that weigh heavily on the minds of English teachers everywhere, ripping my music CDs into the application.
Looking back, I never thought that doing this would make me any kind of innovator in the classroom. As a matter of fact, I probably considered myself a bit of a slacker for doing this instead of using the school-issued laptop to do something more “productive.” I did it because I loved music and I wanted to be able to listen to any song in my collection during passing time, during advisory period, during my preps, or before/after school. It was a completely selfish move.
But in looking out for myself and experimenting with a new technology, I began to feel more confident with other applications on my mac and I began to open myself up to my students so they could get to know me better. Giving my students the chance to see and hear my own personal music collection, they found ways to connect with me and began to see me as someone more like themselves. My students used to hurry to my classroom well before the late bell so they could listen to the song I would be playing, and eventually, I would let them peruse my collection and choose the songs that they wanted to hear. Because of this little bit of personal use of the work machine, I saw one of my early classroom management problems–getting kids in their seats and ready to learn at the start of the period–melt away.
I had one really close call with my administration early on. It was the after advisory period when our schedule permitted students a ten minute passing time to get to their third class on Fridays. The year was 2004 and it was my second year at Newton South. I had survived the first year, but the second year is key because in Massachusetts a new teacher has three years to attain Professional Teacher Status. I had just finished teaching two blocks in a row of rambunctuous freshmen and after advisory, I hurried down the hall to refill my cup with some hot coffee that I knew I would need for my most rambuctuous classes which was on their way to me after advisory. During advisory, I had allowed my students to choose songs from my laptop-based iTunes and pip them through the little speaker in the overhead LCD projector. (Yes, I was fortunate to work in a district that invested in early in the kinds of technologies that we all take for granted now, but I assure you, then, the overhead projectors served mostly as high tech chalkboards.) Because advisory was a very well-behaved group of about 11 students, I was very comfortable allowing them to listen to my music while they relaxed for the 15-minute period. When I said goodbye to them, one of my favorite songs was on, so I just let it play, at a pretty good level of volume, as I walked out coffee cup in hand. I thought I could beat my next class back. My rookie mistake was thinking that there would be fresh coffee in the communal pot by the end of second period. Of course, it was empty, so I had to make a new one, which took up most of passing time. I waited and poured myself a fresh cup and walked back down the hall to my room. As I got within earshot of my room, I heard music blasting from my room. Next time, I resolved to shut down iTunes before leaving class during passing time. As I entered my room with about a ten seconds to spare in passing time, my third period class was in full attendance and not one of them was seated. My class looked like a mall on Saturday afternoon, with freshmen being freshmen in all their vocal splendor. I made a beeline to my laptop and quickly killed iTunes, as I cursed myself for loading The Cult on my work computer. Turning to face my class, all of whom are out of their seats talking, I notice that there are two people seated near the back of the room–my principal and his guest for the day, the superintendent of schools. Gulp. Don’t lose your cool I tell myself. It’s not the students’ fault that the room is so disorderly, it is entirely mine, so I’ve got to rectify that immediately. As the bell sounded, I sat calmly at my usual place in front of the room, smiled, and asked my students to take their seats and come to order. I’m not sure if any of them noticed the visitors, maybe they did, but I like to think of this story as my discovery of my teaching mojo, because they all did exactly what I asked them and within about eight seconds, I was beginning my lesson. My students continued to wow me with their focus and their enthusiasm for our subject, which was a new unit on writing a literary analysis paper on Romeo and Juliet, which we had just spend the last six weeks studying. About half-way through the period, satisfied with what they came to see, my visitors quietly exited the room. The following school year, I was granted PTS and I had the superintendent’s son in my class!
Our main goal in the classroom is to increase student engagement. Technology will not do that for us by itself. We have to be ourselves in front of our students. So if you desire to try out a new technology in your classroom this coming school year, I suggest using that technology for your personal use first. Get to know it, get to know what you like about it. Use it and if you begin to like it, bring it into your classroom. Be yourself and don’t worry about not appearing the expert in front of your class. Take a risk and just use it.
You’ve got lots of support all around you and by using that new piece of technology, you may discover more about yourself and your teaching mojo than you ever imagined. Just take the leap.
I hope that by the end of next school year, you’ve also got a collection of new tools and best of all, a bunch of recollections that your next group of students will find endlessly appealing.